Birdwatching on the Revillagigedo Islands.
By Miguel Camacho.
If you are a tour guide specialized in nature-oriented tourism, it means you are prone to adventure. A recent trip taken by a group of Puerto Vallarta tour guides, specialized in Nature-Oriented Tourism -Whale Watching; Tourism Secretariat officials and a nature photographers to the Revillagigedo Islands proves it. This trip to the islands was made possible by the Tourism Secretariat, as part of its training programs for tour guides.
The Revillagigedo Islands (also Revillagigedo Archipelago or Islas Revillagigedo) are a group of four volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, known for their unique ecosystem. They have been part of Manzanillo municipality of the Mexican state of Colima since 1861, but are nevertheless under Mexican federal jurisdiction, and lie 386 km southwest of Cabo San Lucas, the southern tip of Baja California peninsula, and between 720 and 970 km west of Manzanillo.
The islands are named after Don Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, the 53rd viceroy of New Spain.
Four volcanic islands make up the Revillagigedo archipelago, Socorro, Clarion, Roca Partida and San Benedicto, for a total area of 157.81 km², extending over c.420 from east to west. Socorro is the largest and most diverse in flora, fauna, and topography. Its highest elevation is Mount Evermann, 1130 meters above sea level.
The Revillagigedo are known to be the wintering grounds for whales making the trip from the cold waters of the North Pacific. However, they are also home to a number of bird species, some of them endemic to the islands, which became the object of Tour Guide Gerardo Hernandez’s interest.
The group of tour guides, headed by a representative of the Tourism Secretariat, left Puerto Vallarta early on Friday, May 16, for Manzanillo, where they were to board a Navy ship that would carry them to the archipelago, a 36 hour traverse across the Pacific.
There is a naval station in the south of Socorro Island, with a population of 40 (staff and families). On Clarión, there is a small naval garrison with 9 men. Other than that, the islands are uninhabited. The Mexican Government established the islands as a Biosphere Reserve on June 4, 1994.
The group of Puerto Vallarta tour guides joined a multidisciplinary group made up of biologists from the University of Guadalajara, headed by Dr. Salvador Hernandez Vazquez, who are carrying out sea production studies on the islands, as well as a census of the Townsend’s Shearwater (Puffinus auricularis) population; a group of scientists from the University of Colima, headed by Geographer Gavilanes; and several eco-tourists aiming to climb Mount Evermann.
The ARN DOBLADO set sailed from Manzanillo at midnight, and from the moment it was daylight, passengers were able to enjoy the marvels of the ocean, from a school of bottlenose dolphins frolicking alongside the ship and a humpback whale, to a flock of juvenile red-footed boobies, which perched on the antenna wires and made the journey to the archipelago on the ship.
On May 18, upon arriving at Socorro, the group landed and settled at the assigned sleeping quarters, after which they proceeded to the task of exploring the islands’ singular landscape. Socorro is the island with the most diversity as to flora, fauna and topography, and it was precisely these micro ecosystems that captured Gerardo’s eye. A small forest approximately 600 meters above sea level turned out particularly interesting since it is home to the Socorro Parakeet (Aratinga brevipes); Socorro Mockingbird (Mimodes graysoni) and others.
Only a few hours after landing, they spotted the first endemic bird, a Socorro Mockingbird (Mimus graysoni).
The next morning, after a one-hour drive, Hernandez spotted a Tropical Parula (Parula pitiayumi). Further into the shrub area he spotted several Socorro Wren (Thryomanes sissonii). As the group continued to climb toward the top of the Evermann, they finally spotted a flock of Socorro Parakeet (Aratinga brevipes).
Several endemic species of Socorro are now threatened with extinction. The Socorro Mockingbird (Mimodes graysoni) numbers less than 400 individuals altogether. The endemics Socorro Parakeet (Aratinga brevipes) and the Townsend’s Shearwater (Puffinus auricularis), are also endangered. The Socorro Dove (Zenaida graysoni) is now extinct in the wild, but is being bred in captivity. The Elf Owl’s Socorro subspecies (Micrathene whitneyi graysoni) appears to be extinct. Other plant and animal taxa in the archipelago are also considered threatened or nearly so.
On May 20, the travelers sailed off to Playa Blanca, looking forward to snorkeling in a coral area they learned about. First they stopped at Playa Norte, where Navy infants had an assignment. They swam and explored the beach, where they found tracks of a sea turtle on the sand. Unfortunately the boat broke and they returned to base earlier than scheduled. However, on the way back they saw a shark, turtle and a giant manta ray.
On the 21, aboard the ARM ESCOBEDO, the group sailed along the Clarion Island shore, and enjoyed the company of dolphins swimming alongside the vessel; they spotted killer whales nearby, and a female humpback whale with her calf, frolicking not far from the ship. They also saw a shark, and a number of sea birds: Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), Red-Billed Tropicbird, (Phaethon aethereus) and a crow, which a sailor said has seen eating oysters.
In the early hours of the morning -Gerardo commented- “crewmen rescued a bird after it apparently got entangled in the antenna wires and crashed on deck. We were called to check on the bird; and decided to let it rest for a while before examining it. We found no injuries or broken bones, so we set it free. It was exciting to see the bird take off after setting on the water briefly” he said. The bird was a juvenile Red tailed Tropicbird (Pheathon rubricauda). This species, according to Pitman and Ballance (2002), and Howell and Webb, have been on San Benedicto island only in recent years, and population is estimated at 10 couples.
It is worth noting that not only birds are an attraction at The Revillagigedo Islands. The whole archipelago teems with land and marine life, and unique species exist there, like a beautiful blue lizard. Particularly attractive is the Roca Partida Island, around which hundreds of hammerhead sharks gather, the reason for such gatherings being studied by scientists and sought after by adventurous divers.
Time at the islands seemed to fly, and the group, by then a jovial group of friends, boarded the ARM ESCOBEDO back to Manzanillo. There were lots to talk about on the way back; a cumulus of experiences and learning to assimilate over a short period of time.
The Mexican Armada deserves a special commendation, according to guide Gerardo Hernandez, for their efficiency and professionalism. “I felt safe when the ship commander told us ‘We have a mission to take you safe and sound to shore’” Gerardo said. Life aboard the Navy Ships, models of organization and discipline, was also a great experience.
This trip to the islands has certainly broadened the horizons of tour guides charged with presenting the natural wealth in our region to visitors, as they raise awareness as to preservation of the natural treasures we all enjoy.
Recently, at the convention rooms of Canto del Sol Hotel, a five-day update training session for tour guides took place, to meet the requirements established by the Mexican Norm.
According to regulation NOM-08-TUR-2002, tour guides must accumulate at least 160 hours of training every four years in order to renew their license.
Gloria Lopez Gomez, from the Tourism Ministry Procedures and Verification Department was in charge of supervising the organization of the training.
Classes were taught by specialists, and included aspects of History of Puerto Vallarta and the practice of Bird Watching.
The latter was taught by Tour Guide Gerardo Hernandez Vazquez, Specialized in Nature-Oriented Tourism, Certified in Whale watching and whose Bird Watching Certification is in being processed by the Ministry of Tourism.
Gerardo’s appointment as trainer in this session was determined by his ten years of expertise in the field, by his participation in the Bird Watching Guide Training Regional Workshop, and his recent participation in the recent First International Meeting of Tourism in Protected Areas, where he coauthored the paper “Birds of Puerto Vallarta, Natural Legacy of Tourism in Nature; Preservation and Tourism, Experiences in Ecotourism in Natural Protected Areas; Good Practices in Development of Tourism in Natural Protected Areas”.
During the four-hour initial session, Gerardo shared with his peers his experiences in bird watching expeditions, bird migrating cycles, and the specifics on what makes Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay such a paradise for bird watchers. In the region, a variety of ecosystems coexist, which make up the habitat for a wide range of bird species, both resident and migrating.
According to Researcher Fabio Cupul Magaña’s article published in Mexicoa science magazine, volume 3, numbers 1-2, 2001-2002; at least 369 species, 24 of them endemic to Mexico, can be found in the region.
Training was supported by a slide presentation with photos taken by Hernandez Vazquez over his ten years of career as bird watching guide.
Among the birds presented by Gerardo to his peers, the following stand out: Bobo Patiazul (Sula n.Nebouxii) Blue-Footed Booby, Momoto Coronicafé ((Momotus mexicanus) Russet-Crowned Motmot and species endemic to México like: Urraca hermosa carinegra (Calocitta formosa? Colliei) Black-Throated Magpie Jay, Loro Corona-violeta (Amazona Finschi) Lilac-crowned Parrot, Periquito Mexicano (Forpus cyanopygius) Mexican-Blue-Rumped-Parrotlet, Tecolotito Colimense (Glaucidium palmarum) Colima Pygmy-Owl, Trogon Citrolino (Trogon citreolus) Citroline Trogon, Saltapared Feliz (Thryothorus felix) Happy Wren, Saltapared Sinaloense (Thryothorus sinaloa) Sinaloa –Bar-Vented-Wren, Zorzal Dorsirrufo (Turdus rufopalliatus Rufous-backed Thrush-Robin-, Mulato Azul (Melanotis caerulescens) Blue Mockingbird, Vireo Dorado (Vireo hypochyseus) Golden Vireo, Carpinterito Cachetidorado (Centurus chrysogenys) Golden-cheecked woodpecker, Chachalaca Mexicana (Ortalis poliocephala) West Mexican Chachalaca, Chachalaca Vientre-castaña (Ortalis-poliocephala?-wagleri) Rufous-bellied-West Mexican Chachalaca, Codorniz Elegante (Callipepla douglasii) Elegant Quail, and Colorin pecho naranja (Passerina leclancherii) Orange-breasted Bunting.
An emphatic warning was issued by Hernandez to the class against the use of recorded sounds to attract birds to the purpose of watching them, since the recorded birdsong is interpreted by the resident bird as an invasion of his territory, and could reach the point of eliminating its offspring in outrage.
The issues dealt with during the training were of such great interest to the participating guides that they all requested field practices, and according to Ms. Gloria Lopez Gomez’s response, such practices are to be included in the next session’s curriculum.
Undoubtedly, training like this works very well in maintaining quality service standards in tour guide activities, but also to promote awareness as to environmental preservation and protection of bird species.
Birdwatching in Puerto Vallarta
( Published in Ambito Puerto Vallarta newspaper,
issue 168, May 15, 2005 )
Last week I went out bird watching with my friend Gerardo. He is an experienced tour guide who specializes in nature tours and bird watching, and received first-hand training by Manuel Lomelí,a specialist with over 40 years of experience.
Puerto Vallarta is a very special place for bird watching. Because it has wetlands, coastal lagoons and estuaries as well as jungle covered mountains, it offers a home for all kinds of birds, from spoonbills, herons, egrets, ducks, to woodpeckers, doves, flycatchers, parakeets, jays, magpies, orioles, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, owls, hawks and eagles. There are numerous endemic species, some of which share a home in Puerto Vallarta and can only be found together here.
Bird watching is an early morning activity. We left before sunrise towards the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, and very soon we spotted some ducks flying to their feeding areas, a prelude to the many species of birds we were about to encounter.
With the rising sun we arrived at a crossroad were we got off the van and started walking on foot trails, and immersed in a birdsong symphony; at a certain point we could hear the song of ten different species of birds around us.
Gerardo, of course, knows all the birds by name. And he told me the name of every bird we spotted, but they were simply too many to remember. I do remember a few of them, like the black-throated magpie and the San Blas jay, elegant trogon, cinnamon hummingbird, gray hawk, a black hawk we spotted in the distance.
As we strolled along the paths under the evergreen trees, we enjoyed witnessing the life of birds, something that looked like hummingbird courtship later turned out to be a territorial quarrel; and the magnificent flight of two gray hawks was in fact a diversion to drive us away from their nest, which we discovered on the top of a huge tree, and from which we kept a respectful distance. This diversion proved to be a priceless opportunity to admire those wonderful birds flying around for quite some time. One of them later remained perched on a tree branch, and that was a treat to our eyes. It was a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by such an abundance of wildlife. At times we had a hard time deciding on which specimen to set our binoculars. Sparrows, jays, trogons, parrots, hummingbirds, it was a feast!
We spent the morning filling our senses with the sounds and the sight of beautiful birds, and the cool morning breeze on our faces.
As we headed back for Puerto Vallarta, we were both very pleased by our successful bird watching expedition. We had enjoyed the sight of numerous species of all kinds of birds, even enjoyed the excitement of spotting a species of robin for the first time, and rejoiced in the close contact with nature.
Nature Vallarta Birding Tours
Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit
with Gerardo Hernández Vázquez
Bilingual (English-Spanish) Guide Specialized in Nature-oriented Tourism